Monday, July 27, 2009

S. Darko: A Donnie Darko Tale

Say what you will about Donnie Darko -- Lord knows I have -- but you have to admit: it's unlike anything you've ever seen. That doesn't make it a good film, especially when you take into account how the script reads as if Richard Kelly was sitting at his computer with some science and philosophy books and just copying whole passages with no care for flow. Nevertheless, Donnie Darko was made by a man with ideas, albeit ideas he couldn't come close to combining into a truly thought-provoking whole. The creators of S. Darko had ideas too; the difference is that the chief idea knocking around director Chris Fisher and writer Nathan Atkins' heads was, "How can we milk that Darko teat some more?"

Made without an iota of involvement from Kelly, S. Darko plays like a photo album of frames of its predecessor, albeit with some editing in Photoshop to replace Jake Gyllenhaal with Davleigh Chase, the young sister with only tangential importance to the original. So many shots, ideas and plot points are directly lifted from DD I'm not entirely unconvinced that they didn't just re-cut the film and slap a new title on the reels. S. Darko is such a cheap, shameless cash-grab that I'm almost willing to retroactively declare Donnie Darko a masterpiece in comparison.

Samantha is all grown up now, but she's still affected by her brother's death (understandable). At the start of the film, Sam's car breaks down as she and her best friend, Corey (Briana Evigan), are on the way to California to become professional dancers. Clearly the two are angsty and rebellious, because they are insufferably rude and arrogant to everyone they meet. When a perfectly amicable Born Again preacher attempts some idle chat, Corey insults the sexual restrictions placed upon him, which doesn't even make sense because he's a pastor and therefore likely Protestant (though he does wear a priest's collar). Either way, it's completely unprovoked and repellent.

So, where Donnie Darko at least had an interesting take on teen ennui before it splintered off into too many tangents, S. Darko starts bad and only gets worse. Sam begins to experience the sort of visions her brother suffered, as does a homeless veteran of the first Gulf War, "Iraq Jack." They are told that the world will end, because nobody can catch a break in this universe.

What follows is, as I've already said, a lame pastiche of the original. While Kelly's writing was clichéd in its philosophy and its handling of themes, it at least presented quirky characters and strange situations that created the façade of depth. The characters themselves are stereotypes in this film: Corey and Sam play like your parents' idea of disaffected youth, and they move through a world that includes a sexy stud shrouded in indifferent intrigue, a nerd as obsessed with a meteorite (which serves the purpose that the jet engine did in the last movie) as he is with Sam, and that insulting caricature of a veteran suffering from PTSD. At one point that preacher does make a pass at Sam out of sexual frustration, but his devout parishioner (Elizabeth Berkley -- yikes) blames Sam for tempting him.

I apologize for being unable to mention a single aspect of the film without comparing it to the original, but I have never seen a sequel that so demands to be compared with its predecessor. That's a bold move, considering Donnie Darko remains a cult hit and this, this is awful. Evey line of dialogue smacks of laziness, and they sound even worse when delivered through the actors, who all seemed to realize just what a steaming pile they signed up for just before the cameras started rolling. Even the music selection makes Kelly's facile song choices look about as ingeniously chosen as the tunes that light up Scorsese or Tarantino pictures.

S. Darko isn't the worst sequel ever made, but it's one of the most pathetic cash-ins of recent years. I can't think of a nice thing to say about it. We're never given solid reasons for Sam's hallucinations, and Fisher embraces the elliptical nature of the first film but omits any scenes of thematic payoff. If Donnie Darko was a great film buried under an unnavigable series of poorly fleshed-out ideas and theories, S. Darko is a film that builds it core with those tangential distractions, leaving nothing of interest to even the most devoted Donnie fan.

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